Opinion: When in doubt, follow your nose

The resignation of Liverpool City Council's Matt Finnegan (PRWeek, 8 Sep) is a cautionary tale for all public service communicators.

Finnegan was an effective operator, but claims to have got caught up in a row between the chief executive and council leader. His parting shot, that he was ‘following instructions', should remind everyone of the importance of retaining perspective in the middle of an internal turf war.

It's difficult to fully assess the case of the Liverpool One following his resignation and the subsequent cancellation of his disciplinary hearing. But the case raises broader questions of our role at the heart of the public service.

When we are attempting to protect the standing of our employers, we should not forget about our own reputations. Sir Bernard Ingham once famously said that a press officer deals in one commodity - credibility. A perception of partisanship destroys personal credibility and can be fatal for both organisations and careers.

Derbyshire County Council's Rod Cook argues passionately that communicators should be the conscience of their organisations. This is an understated role for senior communicators dealing with council leaderships, when unpleasant truths might blight careers in the short term.

But standing up for what's right, and saying no to instructions that seem party political, personally driven or plain pointless, is part of our remit - and a test of our worth.

If it's occasionally difficult to see the most ethical route, then the Nolan Committee's Code of Conduct on council publicity, and the seven principles of public life, offer clear guidance.

But there is a better test. It's a matter of personal judgement, based on experience and learning. This is what we're paid for: the advice we can offer. We should instinctively know when a course of action is right.

Winston Churchill once said: ‘The only guide to a man is his conscience, the only shield to the sincerity of his actions.' So, when faced with unpalatable choices, take the course that your conscience tells you is right.

Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council

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